Possessing one of the area’s best hitters in 6-foot-8 junior Dana Rettke, the focus for the Riverside-Brookfield High School volleyball team is stronger than ever – on defense.

“That is a huge concern. I believe that receiving serve and serving are the two most important skills in the game,” said RBHS coach Dan Bonarigo, who begins his eighth season. “We had great passing last year, which gave us the opportunity to run the middle a lot last year so we were able to get Dana the ball.”

With plenty of experience, leadership and Rettke, who already has verbally committed to play for the University of Wisconsin, the Bulldogs are optimistic that they can build on last year’s 23-14 season and contend for their first regional title since 2009.

In 2014, the Bulldogs won 13 of their final 17 matches to secure their fourth straight 20-win season and were third in the Metro Suburban West at 8-4. RBHS lost to York in the regional final.

Three seniors — libero Selene Anaya, setter Olivia Gyssler and middle hitter Nicole LaBelle – are third-year varsity starters or members. Junior setter Maria Gonzales and junior outside hitter Gia Cinkay also are returning starters.

Two sophomores, middle hitter Vasara Kulbis and outside hitter Michelle Cejka, also were part of the starting rotation in the opener. Other team members are senior Nerija Cuplinskas, junior Maggie Shereck and sophomores and Maya Diaz and Claire Swiatek.

RBHS (1-1) defeated host Wheaton Academy 29-27, 17-25, 26-24 on Sep. 3 but lost its Aug. 25 season opener at Naperville North 25-17, 25-17.

“No matter how many kids return, it’s a new team, trying to figure out what is this team’s mark,” Bonarigo said. “We really do have a lot of experience but we’ve got a couple of kids at new positions. We have four sophomores up and one junior who hasn’t been on the varsity. We’re trying to fit those in.”

Rettke was named all-conference and Most Valuable Player after one of the greatest offensive seasons in school history.

Rettke set a single-season school record with 140 total blocks (88 solos), just missed the single-season kills record with 344 and had a team-best 43 service aces. Rettke had more than 200 kills more than any teammate and had a blistering .476 attack percentage. Her expanded and more diversified role is among several lineup tweaks.

“She really came into her own last year at the middle position. This year, we’re trying to move her over to outside,” Bonarigo said. “She knows that she’s got to keep working and she’s developing her skills. We hope that putting her at the outside gives her the chance to be more well-rounded because she’ll be passing, playing (more) defense. Last year, she’d serve and then come out. We’ve got her playing all the way around.” 

With returning setters Gyssler (356 assists, 140 digs, 34 aces in 2014) and Gonzales (296 assists, 103 digs, 24 aces), that should bolster other offensive options, such as LaBelle (134 kills, 34 blocks) and the left-handed Cinkay (24 kills), who was injured for about half of last year’s matches.

Anaya (157 digs, 18 aces) moves from defensive specialist after the graduation of all-conference libero Natalia Gheewala, whom Bonarigo said was “probably the best passer and defender we’ve ever had.”
Tri-captains Anaya, Gyssler and LaBelle are determined to set the tone for success.

“I think a number of them were really thinking about the offseason and kind of getting back to where we were. I think we started in a good place as far as skill level goes,” Bonarigo said. “I tell the kids we’re not going to get upset about wins or losses, conference finish. As far as goals, you want to say you’re in every match and give yourself a chance to win so you can walk away from that match satisfied.”